Saturday, March 17, 2007


In a post celebrating the publication of J.M. Coetzee's new collection of criticism, Inner Workings, Scott Esposito says parenthetically of Coetzee's most recent novel, Slow Man, that it's "one of the Coetzee novels that [he] found more pedantic than satisfying". I liked Slow Man, and I've disagreed with Scott on that book at his blog before, but right now I'm interested in that word "satisfying". I've noticed the word in common use as praise for a novel. I'm sure I've used it as such myself. But what is meant when we say that a novel is or isn't "satisfying"? It seems to me that when we talk about that genre of literature known as "literary fiction", a novel is satisfying to the extent to which it meets certain kinds of readerly expectations. An engaging story, told well. Usually including emotionally compelling characters we can "care about". Intelligent; well-written; clever.

Let me return now to the topic of my last post: Gabriel Josipovici and his talk the other night in London. Ellis Sharp mentioned in his post on it that Josipovici read aloud from three unidentified works of fiction. Says Ellis:
They were all bad writers, going through the motions, Jospivoci argued. Each extract raised questions of narrative authority. Each author displayed a complacent omniscience about their characters.
Steve Mitchelmore modifies this impression in a comment to his own brief post about the talk, at This Space:
I would correct one thing: I think he said those "writers going through the motions" weren't bad at all - in fact that they were all talented etc, but that they went blithely on churning out these books untroubled by doubt.
An earlier post from Steve touched on "guilty pleasures" and the "philistine drivel flow[ing] from the assumption that Great Art is a Platonic realm and good for you like a sermon, while 'guilty pleasures' are what we'd all prefer to engage in instead." Steve objected to this and then, with some weariness, wrote: "It isn't about snobbery but making the distinction between an ephemeral need and what is needed at the deepest level."

I think this distinction is not felt by many, or not understood. Usually it's perceived that if you don't read any "genre", for example, it's because you're being dismissive and elitist. And genre enthusiasts can compare much of what they read with much of what gets hailed as "literary" and often rightly not see anything special about the latter, noticing that it's just as unoriginal and formulaic as non-genre readers assume genre is. Because most of what gets published as literary fiction, and is considered for literary awards, is not particularly interesting. Even when it's good and well-written. Most of it does not meet that need felt at "the deepest level". Most of it would not induce most readers to claim it as a "guilty pleasure", yet they offer not much more than a satisfaction of "an ephemeral need" (a need, in this case, to read a smart, entertaining story). We can disagree on which books meet that deeper need (or even address it), but if we don't agree that there is a distinction to be made on this point, conversation will remain difficult.

In his post, Ellis wrote that that Josipovici mentioned two of the "very few of the modern British novelists" who wrote out of an awareness of the "bad faith" of the novel (as acknowledged by the Modernists): "William Golding, in Pincher Martin, and Muriel Spark, in The Hothouse By The East River." I've never read either of these writers. Since Golding is the author of Lord of the Flies, which often gets lumped in with books like The Catcher in the Rye (books we're supposed to read in high school), I've had a tendency to assume that I could not bother with him and not be missing much. But then I learned he'd won the Nobel Prize, which did compel me to readjust his position in my mind slightly. Now I definitely want to read Pincher Martin, at least.

Steve noted that Josipovici, to Steve's evident dismay, interestingly named John Updike as a "popular literary novelist who was aware in his or her work of the issues raised in the talk". Steve wondered whether it had been Ellis who asked the question prompting this reply. Ellis says no: "Had I been quizzing the genial Gabriel Josipovici on his attitude to modern American fiction, the gauntlets I would have thrown down would have been early Pynchon and David Foster Wallace." It pleases me that Ellis mentions David Foster Wallace in this context, because it seems to me that Wallace is misunderstood by admirers and detractors alike. He is not just "playing games"; he is not simply refusing to "incorporate" his own critical stance on irony into his fiction (of which he is routinely accused, casually and gratuitously, most recently, to my attention, here). I think he is very aware of the problems that Josipovici appears to be raising, and that in his fiction he is working through these problems seriously (see an earlier post by me on Wallace here; by the way, I think this much-discussed "stance on irony", as delineated in the above-linked interview, and in his essay "E Unibus Pluram", found in A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, is also misunderstood, especially as it relates to his own fiction). What he doesn't do is "satisfy" our expectations for a certain kind of psychologically convincing, emotionally compelling story. He may, instead, address the "deeper level of need" (I think he does). I was going to say that when this deeper need is addressed there might be a different sense of satisfaction--we might be satisfied that the need is being met--but are we ever really satisfied in this sense? Do we not in part seek out such books because we remain, and must remain, unsatisfied?


steve m said...

Richard, it wasn't Josipovici who suggested John Updike, it was the person who asked the question (whom I thought might have been Ellis). GJ didn't give a name but asked the person back for one. It's a shame I didn't make that clearer.

I happen to know he's not a huge fan of Updike.

I've not read DFW. Tried to read "Oblivion" but didn't get very far.

BTW, I read Pincher Martin as a result of his recommendation but now I understand he rates "The Spire" above it. I enjoyed PM but it seemed quite dated in some ways.

Richard said...

Ah, thanks for the clarification; that makes a little more sense.

Ellis said...

In retrospect I’d also want to sing the praises of Donald Barthelme’s short fiction and the Robert Coover of Pricksongs and Descants. I don’t share Josipovici’s enthusiasm for Golding but I do for Muriel Spark, though her oeuvre strikes me as being patchy. The Driver’s Seat is one of her best. More formally innovative than Spark was Ann Quin, especially in Three (1966) and Passages (1969). A revaluation of Quin is long overdue.

‘Untroubled by doubt’ is exactly it. So much of what passes for literary fiction is simply innocent storytelling. The novel of the moment in British fiction outlets is The Tenderness of Wolves – a yarn, in flat lazy second-hand prose. The fact that a novel like Tom McCarthy’s Remainder couldn’t find a publisher in Britain indicates something seriously wrong with the culture. Another proof: before the Jospivoci talk I called into Britain’s biggest bookshop, by Piccadilly Circus. Its huge fiction section contained not a single title by him.

Richard said...

Yes, Barthelme was great. I haven't read Pricksongs and Descants, though I have read other Coover books.

Thanks for the tip on Spark. I read Quin's Three a few years ago; I thought it was quite good. Started Passages but didn't get very far; I need to return to it. Thanks for reminding me.

I said that I bought two Josipovici novels when I was in Paris last Fall, but they were difficult to come by. I had grandiose visions that I'd be able to find a lot of writers in translation who don't appear much in US stores, as well as a backlog of stuff by Josipovici--I expected to have to decide which ones NOT to buy! As it was, I eagerly snapped up the two at Shakespeare & Co. That store especially I expected to be impressed by. It was merely ok.